Dept. of Speculation
by Jenny Offill
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Offill’s Finely Wrought Novel Satisfies
By Ellen Birkett Morris
Jenny Offill’s latest novel, Dept. of Speculation, is a study of life as a mother, writer and wife in the modern age. Like much of modern communication it is told in short form, mostly short paragraphs and snippets. The impressions, facts and descriptions that are offered combine to paint a vivid, moving portrait of a woman navigating the challenges of motherhood, relationships and work. Offill offered her thoughts on the writing life and the development of Dept. of Speculation:
| “My big influence there was Gilbert Sorrentino, a brilliant writer who scared me to death.”
AUTHORLINK: Tell me about your apprenticeship as a writer.
OFFILL: I went to UNC-Chapel Hill as an undergraduate and I studied with Doris Betts, Jill McCorkle and Robert Kirkpatrick among others. All three were great mentors to me as a young writer. Later, I got a Stegner Fellowship at Stanford. My big influence there was Gilbert Sorrentino, a brilliant writer who scared me to death with his erudition and his cutting comments about unadventurous, middlebrow writing. The first time I wrote something he praised was one of best moments I’ve ever had as a writer. I haven’t studied with anyone or been in any writing groups since.
AUTHORLINK: Talk to me about the title Dept. of Speculation? What did this mean when the couple exchanged letters? What did it come to mean later when the wife was speculating on the husband’s (and her own) motives and desires?
OFFILL: There’s no hidden meaning to it. It was the return address they used on the letters they wrote each to other before they were married. They would send each other little things they’d found that they thought were interesting and toward the middle of the book when they become estranged, the wife picks up this phrase again because she is speculating about how things ended up as they did.
|“I wanted to write a philosophical novel that was experimental in form and was centered on a wife and mother.”
AUTHORLINK: How did the premise of the book develop?
OFFILL: I wanted to write a philosophical novel that was experimental in form and was centered on a wife and mother. In general such novels of ideas feature male narrators who have little or no family ties. I thought there was a room for a novel that explored both the mundane and the sublime moments of family life and especially the interesting way most of us swing back and forth between them. One of the models was Rilke’s Duino Elegies as well as his Letters to a Young Poet. Both of which address the intersection of art and life.
AUTHORLINK: Tell me about the choice to refer to the main characters as “the wife” and “the husband”. In some ways this makes the story feel like a parable, although the story is anything but simple.
OFFILL: There are quiet shifts of point of view in the novel and they are meant to mirror how close or distant the narrator feels from her husband. So in the beginning when they first meet, she speaks directly to him as “you”. Later, after they marry and fall into prescribed roles, she says “my husband”. And then as things begin to fall apart, the POV spins out into space and the narrator speaks of everything as from a great height. It is only at this point that, she calls him “the husband” and herself “the wife”. And then, slowly, the POV changes and moves closer again.
AUTHORLINK: Talk to me about how you connected the threads of the story – recurrent themes, facts, characters.
OFFILL: I waited a long time to see what would emerge. It was a bit like looking at the sky and seeing only dots of light. I didn’t know if I was looking at Orion’s belt or the little dipper, but I just looked and looked until finally they made a constellation.
AUTHORLINK: Where do stories begin for you? character? plot? image? first line?
OFFILL: Usually with an image or a line. There’s never a plot of any sort until the eleventh hour.
AUTHORLINK: This book is about the ups and downs of married love, the complexity, the messiness, and ultimately the hope. What sort of feelings/impressions do you hope the reader walks away with?
OFFILL: Whatever they like. My only hope is that they are interested and moved by the book.
“I felt that this form would either fail spectacularly or succeed spectacularly.”
AUTHORLINK: What were the greatest challenges when writing Dept. of Speculation and how did you overcome them?
OFFILL: I felt that this form would either fail spectacularly or succeed spectacularly. I didn’t feel like it had any margin for error. The novel could so easily be too disjointed or too precious. I just worked on each section until I couldn’t make it any better and then moved to another one. It took a very long time to see the shape of it and I certainly had my share of moments in which I was convinced it would never make sense to anyone but me.
AUTHORLINK: How has the process of writing changed for you as you have gained more experience?
OFFILL: It’s gotten harder. I’m not satisfied with my old tricks. But it’s more exciting too when something finally clicks into place.
AUTHORLINK: Talk about the process of revision for this novel. What was it like working with Jordan Pavlin? How many revisions did you do and what was your main focus when making changes? Advice on revision for apprentice writers?
OFFILL: Jordan was great to work with as an editor. The novel was in a pretty finished state when I sold it, but she had lots of astute comments about how to make it better. Italo Calvino once said that “revision is the subtraction of weight’ and I subscribe to this theory. I think of this in terms of not being heavy handed. A light touch goes a long way when revising fiction.
AUTHORLINK: Are there particular habits that you would encourage writers to cultivate?
OFFILL: You should spend time alone without a phone, without music, without any plans at all. This is how you learn to pay attention to the world around you.
AUTHORLINK: How did you connect with your agent (Sally Wofford-Girand at the Union Literary Agency)? Any tips for selecting the right agent?
OFFILL: I sent her a few stories and then met with her. She was just a little older than I was and this turned out to be great because she was really interested in finding new writers and placing them with good editors. Sally wasn’t (and still isn’t) at all jaded about the publishing process. She has been the best agent imaginable and utterly loyal to me through all my years of floundering.
“Encourage each other to be rigorous and to work as hard as possible.”
AUTHORLINK: Advice to new writers on staying encouraged and focused on the right things?
OFFILL: Build a community of other writers and artists and spend time with them talking about books and music and art. Take yourselves seriously, but banish all talk of networking, how to make it etc. etc etc. Careerism is poison. It never leads to good art. Be sure to read what the best small presses are putting out as well as whoever is the flavor of the month. Encourage each other to be rigorous and to work as hard as possible. After five years have passed look around and see where you are.
AUTHORLINK: Discuss what you are working on next.
OFFILL: Too superstitious for that, but it’s a novel.
|About the Author||
Jenny Offill is the author of the novel Last Things, which was chosen as a Notable Book of the Year by The New York Times and was a finalist for the L.A. Times First Book Award. Her children’s books include 17 Things I’m Not Allowed to Do Anymore, 11 Experiments That Failed and Sparky.
|About Regular Contributor
Ellen Birkett Morris
|Ellen Birkett Morris is an award-winning writer whose work has appeared in national print and online publications including The New York Times. She also writes for a number of literary, regional, trade, and business publications, and she has contributed to six published nonfiction books in the trade press. Ellen is a regular contributor to Authorlink, assigned to interview various New York Times bestselling authors and first-time novelists.|